How to Make Onigiri (Japanese rice balls)

heart-shaped onigiri

The past week’s snow storms have given me and my husband an opportunity to catch up on some films I have wanted to see for a long time. For years, we had both heard of the genius of Akira Kurosawa (as the Bare Naked Ladies say, “Like Kurosawa, I make mad films. Okay, I don’t make films, but if I did they’d have a samurai”) and we finally had a chance to see for ourselves. Over the past 10 days, we have watched Seven Samurai, Sanjuro, Yojimbo and Rashomon — all brilliantly written and acted, and beautifully filmed. His works definitely live up to the praise that I have heard all my life. My husband and I are now official Kurosawa fans.

One theme that I noticed flows through all four movies, is the eating of white rice. It was considered of great value to the characters, who lived in 11th to 16th century Japan. In Seven Samurai, people are presented with onigiri, or rice balls. And this got me thinking about a project I had wanted to undertake for some time. Given that it was Valentine’s Day, I was inspired to try making heart-shaped onigiri!

A couple of months ago, I noticed a small Japanese market on U Street. Even though Hana Japanese Market has apparently been there for over a year, I had driven past it many times before I discovered it. I was thrilled. As far as I know, there are no other Japanese markets in DC. There are plenty of Asian markets in the DC area, but they don’t carry some specialty items that I used to easily find in stores in Daido Market in White Plains, NY and Fuji Mart in Greenwich, CT.

onigiri-making supplies

While shopping at Hana Market, I picked up some supplies to make onigiri, with the idea that I would try my hand at making these simple, delicious rice balls. This included short-grain brown sushi rice, large flat sheets of nori (dried seaweed), furikake (in this case, a dried mixture of sesame seeds, shredded nori and salmon), as well as a set of onigiri molds.

I started by cooking the rice according to the package directions. It came out perfectly, with enough stickiness that the rice would hold together, without being too gummy.

half filled onigiri mold

I then pressed enough rice into a wetted heart-shaped mold to fill it half-way deep (it’s important to wet the mold each time to keep the rice from sticking to it). This is actually a mold that I bought at Daido the last time I was in White Plains, but had never used — Valentine’s Day seemed like a good occasion to break it in.

half-filled onigiri mold with an umeboshi

I placed an umeboshi (salty pickled plum) in the center.

Then added more rice to fill up to the top of the mold.

Then I placed the top of the mold over the rice, and pressed down to compact it.

I then took off the top of the mold, flipped it over, and pressed on the bottom to release the onigiri.

heart-shaped onigiri

Et voilà!

finished onigiri with nori decoration

I then decorated it with a band of nori for visual interest!

It was so easy, and so fun, I tried some different variations. This one has a small amount of cooked salmon.

rice with furikake mixed in

And I also mixed some furikake into the remaining rice to make it look more festive. This also adds some interesting flavor and texture to the plain rice.

finished onigiri

Here is the final variety of onigiri! It was super easy, and fun, to make these cute and healthy Valentine’s Day treats.